Other players understood first, and they understood best.
When Vinnie Catricala finally let out his secret this past winter — that he was quitting baseball, at age 25, to pursue a career in law enforcement — the common reaction was incredulity. You’re really going to give up a life of fame and fortune, playing a kids’ game, to become a cop? Are you nuts?
But when Catricala told his former teammates, the ones who had ridden the buses with him in Clinton, Iowa, and Jackson, Tenn., and Midland, Texas, the ones who knew what it was like to be mired in a slump and miss your girlfriend and wonder if you were ever going to make it to The Show — well, they could relate.
“Dude, I just didn’t want it anymore,’’ Catricala told them, and they’d nod their heads.
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“People who haven’t played don’t understand,’’ Catricala told me via phone, still fired up, justifiably, by his graduation from the Police Academy in Sacramento on June 19. “They think you’re crazy. But the ones who do play, they get it. They say, ‘We understand. Good for you.’ ”
While old baseball buddies like Brad Miller and James Jones, his roommate at various minor-league stops, headed to spring training in February, Catricala was already toiling at the police academy. His stint began Jan. 6 and lasted six months — 950 hours — until the June day when Catricala walked to the stage with his 41 fellow graduates and got his badge pinned on him.
And that’s when Vinnie felt that his father, David, fully understood, too. After the ceremony, David pulled his son aside and told him, “You know what? Forget about baseball.”
His dad had coached Vinnie growing up in Sacramento, and was fully invested in his baseball career. The decision to abruptly retire hadn’t fully resonated, Catricala felt, until then.
“He was one of the biggest proponents of me playing whether I wanted to or not,’’ Catricala said. “But once he saw me on stage with my uniform, how big it was and how much it meant, he said, ‘This is cool.’ Not that I didn’t have his support before, but now he’s in my corner.”
Last week, Catricala began the second phase of his police career, a three-week training period that will lead, on July 19, to another milestone.
“That’s when I throw on a uniform and head on out,’’ he said proudly, alluding to a six-month training period in the company of a field training officer.
Once, not all that long ago, Catricala wore a different uniform as a shining star of the Mariners’ farm system. A 10th-round draft pick out of the University of Hawaii in 2009, he shot up quickly. Though they couldn’t quite pin him down to a defensive position, Catricala made his mark where the Mariners desperately needed help, with his bat.
“Tremendous tools, tremendous talent,’’ said Boston’s Mike Carp, who played with Catricala in the minors. “He was young, wiry. We all thought he was going to be something special. He was one of the up-and-coming guys.”
In 2011, Catricala hit .351 in 71 games for Class A High Desert. That earned a promotion to Class AA Jackson, where he kept raking — a .347 average in 62 games. Combined, Catricala hit .349 in 133 games, with 25 homers, 48 doubles and 106 runs batted in.
The Mariners named him their minor-league player of the year, and there was no debate. By all indications, he was knocking on the door of the major leagues; threatening, in fact, to break it down.
“I don’t know what I was doing, or how, but I couldn’t get out,’’ Catricala said. “I couldn’t not hit the ball. Everything was clicking. In the back of my mind in 2011, toward the end of the season, I was wondering, am I going to get the callup from there?
“I thought I was on top of the world. I tried to get back to there, mentally. I never really got there.”
Catricala earned an invitation to major-league camp in 2012, where he impressed manager Eric Wedge with a .313 average and two home runs in 12 games (plus some homers in back-field scrimmages that added to the buzz).
“I used to joke with him and say it was Vinsanity in Peoria,” said Miller. “He was the talk of Peoria.”
Catricala was one of the final cuts in camp, assigned to Class AAA Tacoma, where the assumption was that a midseason promotion awaited if he continued his 2011 pace. But the magic in his bat never reappeared. Catricala finished the 2012 season in Tacoma with a .229 average, 10 homers, 60 RBI and the first appearance of the doubts that would eventually drive him from the game.
“I had multiple talks with Vinnie,’’ said Daren Brown, his Tacoma manager. “He was frustrated. For a kid who saw his average on every scoreboard the year before at .340, walking up and seeing .210, .215 — it wears on guys. There got to be a point he thought that was going to be it.’’
Brown believes Catricala was a victim of facing older, more experienced AAA pitchers who knew of his reputation and pitched him accordingly.
Catricala, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, said he came to camp in 2013 — his first one as a member of the Mariners’ 40-man roster — with a new mindset.
“My confidence was definitely down, and I was trying a lot of different things,’’ he said. “I remember telling myself after 2012, forget about it. Just focus on having fun. Don’t focus on results too much. Pick one style of hitting and just go out and do it.
“But it just didn’t change. I had a positive attitude, did everything I thought I was supposed to do. It just wasn’t working. It wasn’t happening.”
Catricala was headed in the wrong direction, assigned to AA Jackson to start the season. He continued to struggle, hitting .253 with just four homers in 48 games. The frustration ramped up, now more visibly manifested.
“He would be the first to tell you, his emotions were a big part of what he needed to overcome in his development, his demeanor,’’ said Jim Pankovits, the Jackson manager in 2013. “He seemed to be very hard on himself. He wasn’t easily satisfied, and he didn’t seem to me to have a lot of fun in the game.”
In June, when the Mariners needed to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for veteran pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, Catricala was designated for assignment. A season and a half after being the minor-league player of the year, Catricala was out of the organization.
The Oakland A’s picked him up, but Catricala didn’t have much more luck with Class AA Midland. He hit .221 with four homers in 61 games. Catricala was DFA’d again in late July, and though he eventually returned to Midland for the rest of the season, he was at a vulnerable crossroads as he headed home to Sacramento.
“I didn’t have the desire to play anymore,’’ he said. “Baseball just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I didn’t want to bounce around and not really make much money and be away from my family and girlfriend. I figured this was an opportunity to pursue Plan B.”
Fortuitously, Sacramento announced it was beefing up its police force for the first time in nearly a decade. Since childhood, Catricala had always harbored a desire to be a firefighter or police officer, but he pushed it aside to pursue his baseball career.
Not anymore. That fall, Catricala went to the Sheriff’s Department in Sacramento and took the physical agility and written tests to become an officer. When he passed, and was accepted into the academy, Catricala decided to take the plunge. His baseball career was over, though few outside his close circle of family and friends knew. Catricala held off making it public just in case something fell through at the last minute.
Catricala was waiting for the A’s to call him with spring-training plans so he could tell them of his decision, but they never contacted him. A new wrinkle developed in December when he received a text from the trainer of the Brewers’ Class AAA Nashville affiliate, welcoming him to the team. Milwaukee had selected Catricala in the AAA portion of the Rule 5 draft.
“That was totally unexpected,’’ he said. “I felt bad for the Brewers organization because they picked me and they could have picked someone else. But that’s just kind of the way it happened. I didn’t do it intentionally.’’
The Brewers were understanding, as was Catricala’s agent, Jeff Booris. And when he explained his thinking to friends, they supported him as well, even the ones who initially couldn’t believe he’d walk away from the chance for a major-league payday.
“It’s one of those things — the potential to make millions is always there, but I consider myself a realist,’’ he said. “How long do you want to chase the dream? The longer you do chase the dream, you could miss out on other opportunities that are presenting themselves. I was ready to move on. I had a good run. No regrets.”
When Catricala finally revealed his decision to step away from baseball for good, it felt like all the pressure he had been lugging around for so long had been magically lifted.
When Jones talked to Catricala, he sensed his friend’s conviction.
“When someone that young makes that decision, they must feel very strongly about it,’’ said Jones, who was called up by the Mariners to stay in May. “All you can do is support them. It wasn’t like he was second-guessing himself.”
Catricala still checks the box scores to see how his old teammates are doing, and headed to the minor-league ballpark in Sacramento when Tacoma came through. It turned out watching baseball as an outsider wasn’t as painful as he thought it would be.
“I’m extremely happy,’’ Catricala said. “If there’s one thing I miss, it’s hanging out with the guys in the locker room. Also, I loved batting practice. It was always fun for me.
“As far as the bus trips, sleeping on the floor of the bus, not making much money, smaller towns — to me, there was no reward doing that. It was a tough decision at first, but I made peace with it.”
After his six-month training period ends, Catricala will move into a yearlong probationary period. And once he passes that, Catricala will get a partner and a car and become a full-fledged Sacramento police officer.
“Every day is something different,’’ he said. “It will be an adventure. I never saw myself as someone behind a desk in a suit and tie. I want to be driving around, looking for bad guys.”
Catricala did briefly step back into the baseball world around Christmas when he participated in a camp at his high school, Jesuit, in Sacramento. One of the activities was a Home Run Derby involving several pros in various stages of their career. Despite not having picked up a bat since September, Catricala finished second.
“That’s why I love BP,’’ he said with a laugh. “Hitting home runs in BP is fricking awesome.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry